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Transit-Commuting Workers in Steady Decline: Study

While wealthy cities have managed to grow transit ridership, overall numbers have dropped by nearly 50 percent since 1970. The decrease in riders makes it harder for officials to support future transit investments.

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A lone commuter departs from a passenger train near Chicago.
(Stacey Wescott / Chicago Tribune/TNS)
Camille Boggan does not want to buy a car.

A trained urban planner, recently out of graduate school and living in Philadelphia, she is searching for a job in her field. But many of the positions she’s finding are outside the city.

“A lot of planning jobs are in small municipalities,” says Boggan, who is 25 and has never owned a car. “You have to drive 35 minutes away from the city center, to a job where I'm trying to get people out of their cars, because these jobs have moved to the suburbs too.”

Boggan’s experience highlights one of the findings in a new report from the Urban Institute that shows over the last 50 years the percentage of workers commuting by transit fell from nine percent to five percent. That overall decline obscures some regions that have seen increased ridership, including places as disparate as New York and Salt Lake City. Others have seen sharp falls, including Philadelphia.

The City of Brotherly Love has lost the most transit riders of any American metropolitan area since 1970. It is the only region that lost over 100,000 riders in that time period. The Philadelphia metropolitan area actually added 900,000 workers in that time, as many as the Boston region, where transit ridership grew by over 120,000 over the same period.

The difference is that more of Boston's new jobs, and population, have settled in the city center or one of the transit-oriented small cities — like Cambridge and Somerville — that border it.

“Boston has been able to attract a white-collar, tech-focused base of workers in their downtown in a way that Philadelphia has not,” says Yonah Freemark, senior research associate in Metropolitan Housing and Communities at the Urban Institute. “You can see that Philadelphia's GDP per capita is much lower than Boston's. The types of jobs that are available in any individual metropolitan area influence how many people use public transportation, because tech jobs are more likely to be focused downtown.”

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The findings in the Urban Institute report are based upon a database of commuting patterns that Freemark developed across all U.S. metropolitan areas between 1970 and 2019. He says the report shows the cost of divorcing transportation from land use planning, which is a tendency among American policymakers from the federal level on down.

Beyond Philadelphia, other major regions that have lost the most transit riders are largely in the Midwestern Rust Belt. (New Orleans is in the top 10 cities that have seen the largest transit ridership declines probably because of the exodus after Hurricane Katrina.) In most of these cases, the overall regional population hasn’t necessarily shrunk, but much of the economic and population growth has been pushed into the sprawling suburbs.

In many of these areas, new development is allowed further away from central cities where density would have allowed for convenient mass transit. The result is that car ownership is a necessity, mass transportation withers, regions are more segregated and central cities are hollowed out.

That means residents like Boggan are forced to shoulder the costs of car ownership. The eldest of four siblings, she never owned an automobile as a teenager in suburban Ohio because her family couldn’t afford a separate vehicle for her. Now she’s afraid she’ll be forced to spend all her own savings to buy a car, if she can’t find a job in the city.

“Many of my colleagues [from her graduate school cohort], are considering moving away from Philadelphia because so many of these jobs are out in the suburbs,” says Boggan. “We don't want to buy cars, because we're all single people who don't want to contribute to climate change. We're all thinking, should I move to D.C., New York or San Francisco?”

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These are among the handful of areas where transit ridership has blossomed. In New York City, there were 500,000 more transit riders in 2019 than 1970 (although the overall transit share of commuters fell slightly). Other economically prosperous cities have seen ridership boom too, including San Francisco; Washington, D.C.; Boston; Los Angeles; and Seattle. Freemark notes that the top six regions for venture capital investment are the same as the top six for transit user growth.

The Urban Institute report highlights the policy decisions that have resulted in that heightened ridership, which include the construction of the San Francisco region’s Bay Area Rapid Transit system in the 1970s or Salt Lake City’s TRAX light rail network. But there are also examples that are less likely to win headlines, like Seattle’s heavy investment in a reliable bus network or Salt Lake City’s regional commitment to transit-oriented development.

But Freemark fears there is a degree to which America’s increasing regional inequality plays a role in these outcomes as well.

“Regions that are wealthy become wealthier by attracting more venture capital investment, and they're able to do things like improve their transit system,” he says. “That attract more jobs downtown, which attracts more people on transit, which further reinforces the attractivity of those places and encourages more growth.”

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There are metropolitan areas in Freemark’s study that aren’t the expensive superstar cities, which often have rail-oriented rapid transit systems. Miami, Denver and Phoenix also made the list of cities with the top 10 largest ridership gains in the last 50 years.

But despite these handful of successes, Freemark says that with ridership so low nationwide, it can be very difficult to get policymakers to pursue more transit options. For many politicians, it may seem like a waste of money to invest in systems that carry such a small proportion of the population. For others, there may simply be no political constituencies for transit in their region, because what little exists only helps the poorest residents.

In cities like Philadelphia, which already has a dense urban core and a large transit system, the elements for building a transit-friendly economy already exist. But Boggan is not heartened by the transit and development policies she sees being promoted by local leaders. Once the preponderance of jobs have shifted to the suburbs, it isn’t clear exactly how to bring them back.

"People are coming to the city, as students or as health-care workers, and they’re like this is a great, inexpensive setup,” says Boggan. “Then they end up having to leave because there's no room to move up. There aren't a lot of huge companies where you can move up, so then you have to move out. It’s really discouraging.”

Jake Blumgart is a senior writer for Governing and covers transportation and infrastructure. He lives in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter at @jblumgart.
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